Animal Kingdom

Even In Defeat. Animal Kingdom.

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He was the new racing story of the year. Animal Kingdom, the American-bred, American-trained Kentucky Derby winner that had gone to Dubai and cleaned up the wares in the world’s richest race. He had been portioned out to Australian interests, Dubai interests, so that his fans represented a few continents. He was the sticking chestnut that was something like Cigar, an American hero carted off to the desert, come out the other end a bigger hero.

Off the back of his World Cup victory, it was plausible that Animal Kingdom would go to Royal Ascot and win. Most of the world was behind him. The robust chestnut had a slick modern record - in 12 starts he had been out of the first two only once, in a difficult Belmont where excuses were credible. He had trotted his best over dirt, turf and tapeta, after thousands of miles of air travel, after bumps and knocks in running that would scupper the bravest horse. No, Animal Kingdom was not undefeated in an age where ‘unbeaten’ is gold. But he was honest and tough and world class. He was alive for the Queen Anne.

I was nervous watching him load for the race that kicks off the Royal meeting every year. I didn’t know if he would win, for as much as my Twitter timeline sounded off with ‘sure thing’, ‘load up folks’ and ‘the best horse in the race’, the stiff incline of this famous track has undone more than I can recall. Slipping over the tapeta on a flat, hot track in Dubai is hardly a form line for England, and let’s face it, English commentator Graham Cunningham was spot on: ‘the thought that the Dubai World Cup tends to be the end of something good rather than a springboard to something great rankles’. I had retweeted that in the hour before the Queen Anne.

Animal Kingdom lost his race, and lost it good. He slid home ahead of only two others in a bubble-bursting performance that was almost as painful as Dawn Approach’s Derby. It was hard to defend the effort (he’d had room to move, he hadn’t been too strong to my eyes, it just looked like he was outclassed), but it was also hard to fault him. Where, in his record, had he ever run a poor race?

And that’s the trouble with an extremely likeable horse. When Camelot lost his St Leger, and when Dawn Approach burst into flames in the Derby, criticisms were thick and relentless for these profiled, big-stable horses. But Animal Kingdom is vaccinated from that, perhaps because of his heart, perhaps because of his ownership. Team Valor and co. have been widely applauded for even trying to win the Queen Anne. And history salutes them. Even in defeat, Animal Kingdom was the first Kentucky Derby winner since Omaha, way back in 1936, to have a shot at Royal Ascot. The fact that it didn’t come off is only part of the story today.

The American horse (no, he’s not Australian folks) will likely be retired now, and in a season when we (Australians) have had so many ridiculous, premature retirements in the name of the bottom dollar, this one is thoroughly deserved. Animal Kingdom has gone down the halls of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, the Dubai World Cup and Royal Ascot. It will be a long time before we can say that of another horse, so in this case, yes, last night’s defeat was only a tiny part of an extraordinary story. The horse lost little in defeat.